PARIS — Tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United
States over Washington’s approach to the Middle East
were brewing for months before they burst into the
open last week.
First, there was the American inaction in Syria and
lack of progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace. Then
came America’s withdrawal of aid to the Egyptian
military after the July coup. Now President Obama is
pursuing a very public rapprochement with Iran,
Saudi Arabia’s archrival.
The mounting disagreements between the two longtime
allies is now in full public view. Last week, the
head of Saudi intelligence warned that it would stop
cooperating with the United States on certain
issues. That came just days after Saudi Arabia
stunned even some of its own diplomats when it refused
a rotating seat on
the United Nations Security Council, citing its
anger over the world’s failure to respond to the
crisis in Syria.
This spat reflects the Arab world’s deepening
frustration with American policy toward Syria, Egypt
and Palestine — as well as extreme skepticism about
a possible thaw in America’s relations with Iran.
The Arabs have learned from bitter experience that
whether by confrontation or collaboration, whatever
Iran, America and Israel decide to do leaves them
feeling trampled. Like an African proverb says:
Whether the elephants fight or play, the grass gets
America chose Iran and Israel, over their Arab
neighbors, as its designated “regional cops” in the
1960s and ’70s, at the height of the Cold War. Since
the United States and Iran became sworn enemies
after the 1979 revolution, America’s military wishes
have by and large been carried out by Arab proxies,
often at great cost in blood, treasure and
stability. Lebanon, Iraq and Syria are among the
countries that have suffered immensely.
Strikingly, until last week, it was only Israel, not
its Arab neighbors, that had criticized the thaw in
U.S.-Iranian relations (even though Israel might
gain a lot from a deal that curtails Iran’s nuclear
But ultimately, reconciliation between America and
Iran will require compromise over Arab, not Israeli,
interests. And these interests are neither
Washington’s to cede nor Iran’s to brush aside.
Arab powers fear that negotiations between America
and Iran are likely to leave Israel as the one
nuclear power in the region, while allowing its
occupation of Palestine to continue unabated.
Improved relations between Iran and America could
offer benefits: a lifting of Western sanctions and
American recognition (however grudging) of Iran’s
growing regional influence, starting with Syria,
Bahrain and the Gulf region. The United States could
use Iran’s help to stabilize Syria — as it helped
with Afghanistan after 9/11.
But sooner than later, what appears to be a great
diplomatic breakthrough may be revealed to be no
more than hopping over a volcano.
That’s because Iranian-American détente will likely
deepen the sectarian divisions between Iran and
Saudi Arabia, setting the stage for an all-out
regionwide sectarian conflict.
Since its 1979 revolution, Iran has become
increasingly militarized and religiously
radicalized. The Shiite-Sunni tensions that fueled
the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 have only grown worse.
As the Saudi government made clear last week,
authoritarian Sunni regimes in the region will
probably seek to undermine — rather than accept —
any agreement that foresees growing Iranian
influence in their backyard.
That polarization will inadvertently help Al Qaeda
and other extremist Sunni groups, who are bound to
see in Iranian-Western rapprochement a tool to
multiply their recruits by stoking sectarian hatred.
It has already happened in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon,
and it’s likely to continue.
The consequences are potentially disastrous.
Shiite-Sunni fault lines extend through most
oil-producing countries. The damage to the regional
and global economy from a disruption in the supply
of oil could be huge.
But none of this is preordained or inevitable.
The theological roots of the Sunni-Shiite divide
might go back 13 centuries, but the violence we are
witnessing today is politically motivated and
aggravated by foreign intervention in the region.
The Arab states rejected America’s 2003 war in Iraq,
which is now ruled by an authoritarian prime
minister who is firmly under Iran’s influence. They
are not taking kindly to Iran’s continued meddling
in the region, including its military support for
Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, the
Syrian opposition has rejected any role for Iran in
talks over the future of their country.
While the elephants have been playing, and fighting,
Arab leaders have been watching and learning. They
know that long-term regional stability is a game
they can play, too.
With 370 million people in 22 countries that range
from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, Arabs are
bound to disagree about plenty of things. But they
generally support a Middle East free of weapons of
mass destruction — and that applies to both Iran and
The Arab nations, because of their size and
strategic significance, are indispensable in shaping
the region’s future and its security. Alienating
them is wrong — and dangerous.
If, as Mr. Obama said recently at the United
Nations, he believes that it is in America’s best
interest “to see a Middle East and North Africa that
is peaceful and prosperous,” he needs to make sure
the Arabs are part of, and don’t lose from, any
future bargain with Iran.
Marwan Bishara is
senior political analyst at Al Jazeera and the
author of “The Invisible Arab: The Promise and
Perils of the Arab Revolution.”
INTERNATIONAL NEW YORK TIMES